Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair

Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair has been accused of sexually assaulting a female subordinate after she tried to end their affair. (Andrew Craft / Fayetteville Observer / January 22, 2013)

FT. BRAGG, N.C. — He called her "my panda" and "my baby." She called him "papa panda sexy pants."

They had a three-year affair in Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany and the United States, but they were hardly equals. She was a junior officer assigned to his staff. He was a one-star general.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair now stands accused of sexually assaulting the woman, a captain, who says he forced her to engage in oral sex after she tried to break off their affair.

The general is also charged with threatening to kill the captain and her family, sexually harassing other female officers, abusing his government credit card, and possessing alcohol and pornography in a war zone.

The lurid details have spilled out in court hearings at a time when the military is under intense pressure to curb rampant sexual abuse in the ranks. Last month Congress passed, and the president signed, legislation to bolster prosecution of sexual assault in the military.

The Sinclair case has focused attention on the military's attempts to punish sexual misconduct. It is also a test of claims by many military defense lawyers that high-ranking commanders get a pass for offenses that result in serious charges against lower-ranking service members.

Sinclair's attorneys say pledges by President Obama and senior Pentagon officials to crack down on sexual misconduct have made it impossible for the 27-year Army veteran to get a fair trial. One defense brief cites a comment from the president:

"If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they've got to be held accountable — prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period."

Such statements compelled the military to charge Sinclair and could prejudice prospective military jurors, the defense has alleged.

Women's groups have demanded an overhaul of the current military justice system in which top commanders, invariably male, wield considerable influence over whether and how to bring charges.

Critics have also demanded changes in the way defense lawyers question alleged rape victims on their sexual histories. A female cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy who said she was raped by fellow cadets was asked during a preliminary hearing how far she opened her mouth during oral sex. That outraged women's groups.

The captain in the Sinclair case was repeatedly asked by defense lawyers about details of her sex life.

"This case will show whether the good old boy network still prevails," said Anita Gorecki, a former Army Judge Advocate General officer who represents military personnel.

Sinclair has admitted to the affair but said it was consensual.

Gorecki said no sexual liaison between a junior officer and a commander can possibly be consensual given the unchallenged authority of senior officers.

"There's no way out for the female, who's in an untenable position," Gorecki said. "You're on the job 24 hours a day. You can't just quit. Who do you go to for help? Your commander?"

The captain revealed the affair — and her own violation of military regulations prohibiting adultery — to a major general who is a close friend of Sinclair's. The captain, who is single, was 29 when the affair began. Sinclair, 51, is the married father of two boys.

In addition to sodomy and adultery charges, Sinclair is charged with using his rank and authority to "coerce and compel" the captain to maintain a sexual relationship and threatening "to damage or ruin her military career if she ended their sexual relationship."

Sinclair has mounted an aggressive public defense since he was ordered home from Afghanistan in May 2012 and charged that September. He has hired civilian lawyers, along with a New York public relations firm that runs a website defending him.

The site, http://www.sinclairinnocence.com, says the Army has demonized Sinclair: "They want you to believe that he's a porn-addicted, alcoholic rapist."